Despite lots of good news for Republicans in Tuesday’s election, failures in local Hillsborough races have set off another round of recriminations in the local Republican Party, including renewed calls for Chairman Jim Waurishuk to resign.
But if Waurishuk chooses to run for chairman again, it’s unclear whether any local Republican could mount a challenge, in part because of complex party rules about who is eligible to run and vote.
Republicans won convincingly in congressional and legislative races in Hillsborough, with minority access districts among the few exceptions.
Donald Trump lost the county, but by a margin of only 7 points, despite a substantial increase in the Democrats' voter registration since Hillary Clinton’s 6-point 2016 win.
But among local offices, the GOP lost every countywide race – tax collector, property appraiser, court clerk, state attorney – except sheriff, won by incumbent Chad Chronister against weak challengers.
They lost three county commissioner races, giving the Dems a 5-2 majority; and all three candidates backed by the local party in the non-partisan school board races lost.
Such local races are where county parties are expected to be active, but Waurishuk, a strong and early Trump backer, has been criticized for focusing heavily on Trump instead.
“Time and again I have attended local (GOP) meetings where the focus has been on Donald Trump, only giving a few short minutes to local candidates,” said Danny Kushmer of Brandon, former congressional and state House candidate, in a posting on the local party’s Facebook page this week. “The time has come for new leadership with a focus on rebuilding our base for local candidates.”
That set off a flurry of replies and counter-replies, both blaming and supporting Waurishuk, and some criticizing Kushmer, who said he has no plans to run against Waurishuk.
Critics noted the party contribute didn’t contribute substantially to local candidates; the local Democratic Party distributed some $274,000 to its candidates.
Others noted that GOP state House candidate Michael Owen and county commissioner candidate Scott Levinson lost by narrow margins, suggesting party help could have made a difference.
In fact, as the county becomes increasingly more Democratic, it’s naturally harder for Republicans to recruit and fund high-quality candidates, regardless of local party leadership.
But there have been previous calls for Waurishuk to leave his post, including from big GOP donors, in response to his inflammatory rhetoric and social media postings.
In response, Waurishuk noted Trump’s better-than-expected performance in the county and the legislative and congressional wins.
He said Kushmer “is entitled to his opinion,” but called it “unfortunate” that Kushmer made his complaints publicly and not to party leaders.
Party insiders noted a problem for anyone who wants to challenge Waurishuk – membership on the party’s governing committee of precinct representatives has dwindled to include mostly Waurishuk supporters.
In addition, the local party reorganizes after every election, so only those who filed for renewal in June will be eligible to run or vote in party elections in December. Some didn’t realize that and lost their spots at least temporarily.
Nonetheless, some party insiders said efforts are underway to recruit a challenger.
Nurse lost allies in school board race
Former St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse had built a web of political allies during his career in local politics.
So where were they when it came to his unsuccessful school board run against Caprice Edmond?
Several backed away from Nurse, worried that their own political futures could be hurt by backing him against the wishes of many Black voters.
Among them: council members Darden Rice, expected to run for mayor next year, and Gina Driscoll, who faces re-election in a district with about 30 percent Black voters.
If Nurse had won, the result would have been an all-White school board — an issue he said he couldn’t get around in his campaign.
“Lots of folks who told me privately they were supporting me were unwilling to say so publicly,” Nurse said.
“I was never able to move the conversation to how do we close achievement gaps and improve our schools. The elephant in the room was always, Karl, you’re white.”
Nurse said Rice and Driscoll had both been strong political allies of his during his council campaigns and theirs, but both declined to endorse him publicly.
Rice and Driscoll couldn’t be reached for comment by deadline for this column.
Who attacked Levinson?
Republican Hillsborough county commissioner candidate Scott Levinson, the surprise of this election year locally, didn’t win.
But he must have scared somebody, judging by an attack mailer that went out against him shortly before the election. The question is, who? And why did it come from someone in his own party?
A youth football league head previously uninvolved in politics, Levinson beat a better-known and better-funded competitor in the Republican primary, Tony Morejon.
He then came within 1.5 percentage points of upsetting Democrat Harry Cohen, one of the county’s most prominent political figures, in the general election, while being outspent 12-1.
The attack mailer came from a political committee called Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy, one of many committees run by local Republican political operative Anthony Pedicini that shift political donations among other committees and candidates, rendering the money untraceable when it’s spent attacking a candidate.
It focused on several accusations against Levinson from his past, only one of them with any substance, he said — that he hadn’t registered or voted before running for office.
“It’s true,” he acknowledged. “I just wasn’t into politics.”
The others were scurrilous and, Levinson said, untrue or grossly distorted.
Cohen has had strong business community support in his campaign but denied any knowledge of who was behind the mailer, or any ties to Pedicini.
Pedicini didn’t respond to messages calls for comment.
Contact William March at firstname.lastname@example.org